Journal (14Jul11)by Tourguide on Thu 14 Jul 2011, 11 PM CEST, Views: 720
My journey across Northern Italy continues this week as I make my way from the Medical Center in Vicenza to visit in on the sites in Livorno, the Airbase at Aviano and even the nearby civilian Italian hospital at St Bortolo, who also tend to treat American Soldiers from time to time. Checking out a map of my team’s journey, you can definitely see why I opted for the unlimited miles plan on my car rental.
The 9 hour round trip voyage out to Livorno was of particular interest because it allowed me swing past Pisa on the way back. Now having seen it, I must say, Pisa was absolutely gorgeous.
I was expecting a leaning tower sure, but the thing looked brand new. Sparkling stone throughout. Obvious imperfections aside, it was a thoroughly remarkable piece of architecture. Plus the grass lawn surrounding it was, ..well, spectacular. The city of Pisa itself, though by the water, looks kinda arid. It is covered with scraggly trees, thinning bushes and rocky hillsides. Reminds me a bit of Nagshead, NC.
However, coming into the platza that held the Tower, and the adjoining Duomo di Pisa Church, I found a lawn that Pebble Beach would have envied. The thing was absolutely meticulous, not a blade of grass out of order. The grounds maintenance work must keep half the city employed. I know it’s odd to see a world renowned architectural structure and to gush over the grass instead. But seriously, you have to see this thing. Coming from the dry and dusty fields in the surrounding areas to this!
And clearly the residents of Pisa enjoyed it as well, as there were people spread all over it playing soccer, having picnics and lying out. The best part for me was seeing all the tourists trying to get posed pictures to look as though they were trying to push the tower back up. Seriously hundreds of them everywhere all lined up with outstretched arms. The effect was pretty cool though, if the photo is done right. There is even a website dedicated to it.
Still seeing dozens attempt it at once was funny. From the distance it looked like a yard full of people practicing Tai Chi. Very humorous. Reminded me of being in front of the Louvre and seeing everyone there trying to appear like they were leaning their elbow on top of the glass pyramid. Ah, yes, everyone going for the same completely un-unique unique photo …so American.
Two other items of note from our trip through the Livorno area were the unique trees and flowers we passed along the way. As I said before, the area is rather arid in a beach-town kind of way, so it struck me as odd to see so many full bodied trees off near the main road through town, in a straight line no less. Truly odd that on one side of the street you would have a tumbleweed and on the other you have a row of bushy trees that Savanna, GA would be proud of. Well, turns out, this is no accident.
Story goes that these trees were planted by the Romans so they could march to and from Rome in the shade. Taking a look at them, it seems they have accomplished this purpose perfectly. Wow, leave it to the Romans to think so far ahead that they brought tree saplings with them to preserve the road. How is that for an ominous sign? You live in a neighboring city-state and your recent conquerors not only show up to pillage and plunder, but they make a road, including landscaping, to mark the route back to you. That’s like guests showing up at your door with suitcases. Get comfy, it’s gonna be a while.
The other very cool thing I liked about the northwestern coast of Italy, was the endless fields of sunflowers I saw. Just as far as the eye could see. Now I’d seen the Keukenoff festival in Holland, and it’s horizon of tulips, and I’ve driven through France and see the endless vistas of mustard seed, but these sunflowers take the cake. Just gorgeous. And the coolest thing is that they all faced the same way. Makes sense as they face the sun, but driving by it kind of reminded me of looking out across an auditorium, staring out at thousands of faces. For a moment there I felt myself looking for my speech, ha ha.
Flower gazing complete, we made our 4 hour trip back to Vicenza to formally close our or business there and say our goodbyes. That wasn’t without incident either, however. If you are wondering if a giant glass bottle of water left in the backseat of the car can *explode* if left in direct light for too long, it most certainly *can*.
Yah, regular water is OK, but sparkling, or gassed water, left under direct sun will become an instant IED. Yep, all over the back of my rental car. I was pulling glass shards out of the arm rests in the *front* seat. Wow, …just wow.
Now, outside the phenomenal Vicenza Health Center which I detailed in my blog last week, the Vicenza US Army Garrison’s main claim to fame is that it is host to the 173rd Airborne Infantry. World renown as some of the toughest SOB door-kickers you’ll find east of Ft Bragg’s 82nd Airborne Division. These guys take all the point-of-the-spear toughness that comes with a normal infantry division and combine than with the type of mentality that is OK with just being dropped out of the sky to do the job.
The “Sky Soldiers” they are called, and for good reason. Airborne school is no joke, and only the best and brightest get pulled for dream team brigades like the 173rd. Their exploits are legendary, combing through their article on Wikipedia reminds of watching the film series Band of Brothers. Check out the 173rd’s involvement in the Battle of Wanat. You can’t make stuff like that up. You remember reading about that guy who won the Medal of Honor last year, a Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta. First living recipient of the Medal of Honor in over 50 years. Yep, he was 173rd.
And, as powerfully captured in the short film Restrepo, SSG Giunta was just one of the boys. He clearly started it could have been anyone in the 173rd who earned that medal. If you have a few minutes to spare I ask you, no, I implore you, take the time to watch Restrepo. The link provided here is a 14 minute interview with the SSG Giunta. Watch it, and see first hand what these boys went through in Iraq. You will simply gasp out loud at the footage they captured.
I was actually honored this week with the chance to work out alongside the 173rd, albeit not intentionally. Knowing I would be in Vicenza a full week, one of the things I was looking forward to was hitting the base gym and maybe going for a run along the canals by our hotel. As it happened I was able to do both. The gym on base was beautiful, equipped with a gorgeous full sized running track and even an outdoor pool (with retractable roof). Running through Vicenza was beautiful too. Who wouldn’t complain about having this scenery on your jog? The gym, however, was a bit of a surprise. You see, what I hadn’t counted on was that all those bad-ass 173rd guys would be in the gym too. And wow, talk about testosterone.
I saw guys physically slapping each other to ‘encourage’ one more rep out of them. In the back room, there were guys doing deadlift with buckets and chains added on. There were giant ropes, kettle bells and all sorts of instruments of torture.
Easing in as best I could, I soon found a very comfortable rhythm going through my routine to the sound of grunts and weights crashing to the ground all around me. You couldn’t help but get psyched by it. In a burst of machismo (as misguided as it was), I even asked one of the 173rds for a spot. I bench press well over my body weight, so I wasn’t too embarrassed. Funny though, when I told him I was shooting “4 or 5 reps,” he laughed and said “…No, I’ll tell you how many reps you’ll have.”
Yah, he was clearly not letting me get away with a good “college try.” (What does that phrase mean anyhow, we were lazy as hell in college. A true college try meant sleep in late, give a half-hearted go and hit a kegger).
Ya, so collegiate efforts aside, Mr Sir-Yes-Sir Sky Solider did not let me put the bar back on the stand till *he* was sure I didn’t have anything left in me. I’m pretty sure my comments about “Mommy, I’ve been a good boy” sealed the deal to him that I was through, though. 😉
My arms are toast. So, I’ll be typing up my blogs looking like a T-Rex for the next week. But compared with the chance to drop sweat in the same gym as those guys, …worth it.
As it happened one of the doctors, Steve, who flew down with me to Vicenza served as the 173rd’s Brigade Surgeon for 2 years. The title “Brigade Surgeon” means he was their most senior Doc. He deployed with them, served with them and did his damndest to stitch them back together every night. Every injured or deceased solider from the 173rd passed through my colleague’s care while he was downrange with them. An awesome responsibility to be entrusted with, and a heartbreaking task at times.
I joined Steve as he revisited the 173rd HQ in Vicenza and it was clearly a trip down memory lane. He got a hero’s greeting from everyone he ran into, and one-by-one more guys started showing up as word of Steve’s surprise arrival spread down the hallway. I was happy for him, and he looked like a kid in a candy store seeing his old team again. Steve’s current duties take him away from that path these days, but it was clear to him he wasn’t completely sold on giving it up.
On our way out however, things took a more somber turn.
The 173rd has a special room reserved to honor all of those soldiers who never made it back. They call it the Hall of Remembrance. Inside was a photo of every solider lost, placed in rows and columns, in chronological order. Steve stopped short as he passed it, and I could tell instantly he was weighing whether to go in or not. He did.
So, solemnly, we followed Steve in and watched as he gravitated towards the column of soldiers that were lost during his tenure.
One by one, Steve laid his hand on each picture and recounted for me in vivid detail how he “had lost that guy.” He recalled rolling one guy over in a pool of blood and just seeing the kid’s eyes roll back. He remembered the smell of decay. He remembered one soldier who was brought in specifically because he was the son of a senior guy in the division. So he could be protected. He was killed on his first day.
Seeing Steve reach from name to name reminded me of being a young child and seeing my dad at the Vietnam memorial. Making pencil etchings with wax paper. My dad’s silence then was deafening. His gaze became a thousand yard stare, looking ahead but not seeing. His mind was in another place, several lifetimes before.
Today I saw that same look in my friend’s eyes. You could tell a lot of things had just come on him all at once. Leaving the building, I could tell Steve was awash in some painful times. The look of pain etched in face was palatable. Late night phone calls, becoming that voice on the line no one wants to hear. I didn’t know what to say to Steve, and at the risk of sounding disingenuous, I said nothing.
As a civilian I can’t pretend to know or have any clue how that must feel for him. And leaving Vicenza, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming debt of gratitude to my colleague for the service he provided for his country, and still does, so that I don’t ever have to know how that feels.
America is a safer place knowing the Sky Soldiers of the 173rd are on watch, and because colleagues, like my friend Steve, have stepped forward on my behalf.
This Land is free because of the Brave.
Tell next week friends, where I’ll be coming to you live from Spain. It’s time for the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona, and guess who will be front row and center for all the cattle rampaging action?
Yessiree, …yours truly.
And that’s no bull. 😉